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On 'Vulture Prince,' Arooj Aftab Finds New Meaning In Familiar Words

With <em>Vulture Prince</em>, Aftab exercises the belief that there's a way for artists to make a statement using their work's own subtlety and grace.
Diana Markosian
Courtesy of the artist
With Vulture Prince, Aftab exercises the belief that there's a way for artists to make a statement using their work's own subtlety and grace.

Arooj Aftab's music and compositions are like listening to a soundscape of her home country, Pakistan. Featuring recitations of poems and themes of grief and longing, Vulture Prince is Aftab's third album, out on April 23 via New Amsterdam Records.

Arooj Aftab spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the loss of her younger brother, honoring the music you inherit with integrity, and the solace of sound. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: You dedicated this album to your younger brother, Maher, who died. Can you talk to me a little bit about this? I'm so sorry for your loss. I mean, how did it affect your creative process?

Arooj Aftab: You know, because my previous work has been very, like, beautiful and very meditative. And for Vulture Prince, I was like, I would like to take that to the next level and continue to have that sense of peace. But make it a little edgier — almost like Afrobeat — where the vibe is still chill, but you can dance a little bit. Just a more fun and grown evolution of my sound.

And as I was writing, this life event occurred, and I had to stop because I couldn't resonate with the moment anymore. Because he had passed. And when this happened in the middle of my writing process, the album title itself, Vulture Prince, somehow got a new meaning — which was a very important saving grace.

How did your brother die? If you don't mind my asking.

You know, he was he was young and one of those kids who just is always looking for something in the world and, like, isn't really fitting in. Societies can be really brutal and I think some people, it's hard for them to to cope with that, or to rise above it, or to fight it. He tried, but he couldn't really — he couldn't really stay with it.

Is there a song on this album that sort of that we could play in his memory?

Yeah, actually — "Diya Hai" is the last song that I sang to him in person. We were just kind of chilling together. And I was like "Oh, you sing me something." Because he was really — he's a good singer, too. A beautiful voice. So, he was singing. He was like, "Now I just sing Punjabi folk songs." And I [said], "Yeah, yeah, sing me some stuff." We had the harmonium between us and then I [showed him] what I'm working on. Even though, actually, for this album, I I hadn't really completely prepared "Diya Hai," musically. But I was like, "I'm going to put this in the album."

You were born in Pakistan. You now live in Brooklyn. Tell me about that sort of musical fusion, bringing your roots to this country and making it into something new.

I think that spending a considerable amount of time in Pakistan, I guess up until I was maybe 18 or 19 [years old], I inherited the heritage, right? And then, moving from there to study music, to go to a school that had, like, a lot of diversity, you know, a lot of --

Because you were in Boston at the Berklee College of Music.

Mhm. I built more roots there and I inherited, you know, samba and jazz and Afro-Cuban. I have roots in many places since I moved in 2005 – but I think, most dominantly, what fused was what I studied ,which is jazz — and what I knew subconsciously, which was northern classical stuff. And then, my energy — feeling very chill, feeling ambient, minimalist... I love Terry Riley or [that] type of sort of minimalist music. And so, I think now, after all these years, those things have all come together and are holding hands and are a statement to someone who has roots in multiple places.

Let's listen to "Last Night," which features a poem by Rumi. I mean, you can really hear all those influences there, that you were speaking about. What spoke to you about this poem?

So, this happened in 2010 or something. I was just chilling with some friends. I had newly moved to New York, my friend was just playing some sort of reggae-skank sort of thing. And I just felt like, "I gotta jump on that." And I was reading this Rumi translation book called Hidden Music and so, I just grabbed it and I had a favorite – some of the pages that I really spent time on, they just opened automatically. So, it opened onto that. And I just started riffing and it sounded so good.

But, you know, I didn't put it out for a long time because I was aware of the fact that I'm not a reggae artist, and I don't know what that means. Is this appropriation? But, over time, I think it's not really a reggae song. It's an interesting take on it.

Tell me about that struggle. It's interesting that you would think about appropriation, considering that you're also from, you know, a culture with an incredibly rich experience that perhaps has also been appropriated by others.

I think there's a certain type of awareness that some people have and others don't. I mean, I sometimes feel that. Even approaching my own music — what I mean is South Asian music — it's like the quintessential imposter syndrome situation where, you know, I haven't really studied this and I never went back since [I was 19]. I might be appropriating it too, so I'm always kind of making sure that I'm actually inheriting the music with integrity and with some kind of depth and with some kind of respect for its history, rather than [just] using it. Which also happens a lot in music, where people just ... take stuff, you know? We borrow and we share. And some people do it with integrity and respect and some people don't. So, I've always been very conscious of that and I hope to continue.

You know, it occurs to me — listening to your music — the solace of sound. This has been such an incredibly difficult time for so many people. Have you been thinking about that and how your music plays into that, literally?

Yes, always. I feel a certain type of way about the world and especially in the last three or four years. The way things have been unfolding, it's just madness. It's crazy, and it almost sometimes feels like it's too much. And I think that's really the direction I threw myself in when we pivoted on Vulture Prince — and how it's come out now and the time that it's coming out. I think it's very relevant.

I think there's a way for artists to say something with their work that is not always very direct. It's not always like a social activism, but it is, you know, in its subtlety and its grace. It can just be there very [unimposingly]. And I think, Vulture Prince, by design, I intended for it to have a lot of those elements in it.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.